Pioneer Settlers: Mariah & Charles Wheeler

Introduction:  After coming west from Iowa by covered wagon the Wheelers then survived the conflict in the mid-1850’s.  Mariah gave birth to one of the firs chidren born on the Yelm Prairie.  Below is an account of pregnancy and childbirth on the prairie.

The Wheelers

A “time of illness, death and melancholy,” was how the historian Cathy Luchetti once described pregnancy on the frontier.  Mariah knew, as that same author concluded, that “maternity,” [often] invited mortality.”  As late as the decade of the 1830s one researcher determined that nearly half of children died before the age of five.  Couples like the Wheelers, did not know the odds, they knew from observation and later by experience that pregnancy was hard.

To add extra stress to her altered state, fighting had broken out in the territory.  Recalling this time of “great excitement” Urban Hicks, a Thurston County resident, described the flight of settlers, as men and women with “blanched faces and terror stricken countenances”  fleeing to Olympia where they seemed to fill every house, woodshed and outhouse.  That October Mariah and Charles said their good-byes and he rode off to join his company.  It was soon

Charles Wheeler

dispatched to find Leschi and other Indians who resisted the terms of the recent treaties.  Mariah would spend much of this time without her husband.

 Charles was still at home in the summer of 1855 when Mariah began to notice changes.  About the same time that Mariah realized she had missed a period, she felt sick to her stomach.  It was a feeling of nausea that came and went, yet at the same time Mariah exhibited no other symptoms of illnesses she might have recognized.  Her breasts became tender, a fact she probably failed to tell anyone. She became vigorously hungry. What alerted Mariah to her actual pregnant state is not known. 

 Thousands of miles removed from her mother’s whispered words about pregnancy Mariah turned to others on the prairie for what were truly wives’ tales.  Christina Shelton, Betsy Edgar, Bridget Hughes, and Virinda Longmire, were going  on the subject to be the experts on pregnancy, limited by personal modesty and familiarity with Mariah.  (One of Mariah’s daughters was named Virinda, possibly reflecting a special relationship between Mariah and her Bald Hills neighbor Virinda.) Perhaps she described the changes taking place in her body to her mother-in-law Catherine who drew parallels with memories of her own pregnancies. The closest doctor lived in Olympia, a twenty mile ride away.  In the early fall, just when Mariah’s emotional pitch was tinted by a vague anxiety about the future, conflict had broken out in the territory.

 What did Mariah know about her changing body and growing child?  There were lot of rumors and misconceptions circulating around the frontier at the time.  One theory held that sighting a limbless man led to a child’s deformities.  A variety of maternal behaviors during the pregnancy were linked babies born with warts, scars, moles, lowered intelligence, and birthmarks. Intercourse during a pregnancy might cause a change of gender in the fetus. In what, for the era approximated pre-natal care certain foods were believed to “mark” the baby.  When Mariah became vigorously hungry as her pregnancy extended into the fall and winter, she probably continued eating the seasonal local produce of the area.  Whether her neighbors had any special dietary advice to help for a smooth pregnancy is not known.

By Ed Bergh

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